Friday, May 8, 2015

Weighing In

The Birth of Venus, 1480s ~ Sandro Botticelli, 1445 - 1510
Wikipedia observes that
"Venus' body is anatomically improbable, with elongated neck and torso."
However, look at her tummy: round not flat;
and her breasts: neither implanted nor pushed up.
That's realism enough for me!

Another Throwback:
My thoughts from the late 20th C, sadly still relevant.

It seems impossible to avoid the statistics. Articles everywhere tell us that sixty percent of Americans weight too much or twenty - five percent of American women weigh too little. Once I read that even though more adult men than women are medically overweight, a woman who takes large portions or second helpings at dinner is perceived to be unfeminine -- even if she is noticeably thin! (Unless he has extremely bad table manners, a man's sexual attractiveness is apparently not dependent on his eating habits.) What is the quizzical reader to make of this confusing array of figures? What adjustment is the frustrated dieter required to make in her eating plan? And, most importantly, what is the bewildered woman to see when she looks in the mirror after exercise class -- or after lunch? Is it at all possible for her to see a normal, healthy female? Does such a vision even exist in the fun - house of our dietary - obsessed society, which encourages us to overeat and overdrink and then punishes us when we gain weight? Must we always appear too short, too tall, too thin, or too fat for our own good? Do only fifteen percent of the women -- those remaining when we subtract the too thin and the too fat -- appear to be the right weight for their height?

What determines the perfect height - weight ratio of this small group? A chart on a website? A graph on the giant weighing scale that tells your fortune along with your weight? Or is the concept of the perfect figure derived from the vital statistics of any number of fashion models and beauty queens who list themselves at "Height: 5'10"; Weight: 105 pounds" -- as if this were an enviable, achievable, or even attractive combination, as if a truly healthy person of this height could possibly weigh so little? In Backlash, Susan Faludi wrote that in the late 1980's, "Fewer than one - fourth of American women were taller than five foot four or worse a size smaller than 14 -- but 95 percent of the fashions were designed to fit these specifications" (171). We must not let such discrepancies fool us into believing that we need to be smaller than we are. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that "A generation ago, the average model weighed 8 percent less than the average American woman, whereas today [1992] she weighs 23 percent less" (184); and in Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher observes that "even as real women grow heavier, models and beautiful women are portrayed as thinner" (184). This divergence from reality cannot possibly provide a healthy role model, nor is it something we should emulate or model for our children.

It is not always easy, however to accept reality. Rarely does a grown woman in the public eye, regardless of her height, admit to weighing over 110 pounds. Rarely does a female citizen list the weight on her driver's license as over 115 pounds. Why is this? Do we feel that we should weigh for our entire lives what we weighed at age sixteen? Have we been taught that to attain and maintain a reasonable and healthy weight for our size is somehow taboo? Are we afraid to grow? Or afraid to grow up? Why should we deny the truth that for many women life events such as child - bearing and turning thirty and menopause bring about changes in our bodies?

The issue lies not so much in studying the various (and quite often contradictory) statistics, hoping against hope that we can squeeze ourselves into that magically normal and perfectly proportioned fifteen -- or whatever -- percent; rather the root of the problem is found in the messages which do come through loudly, clearly, and consistently, regardless of the numbers which accompany them: "You need to change your weight. Your body is not right. Eat more. Eat less. Don't be squeamish. Don't be gross. Join a weight - loss program. See a shrink. There is something wrong with you.

Unfortunately the gist of these messages goes way beyond such helpful advice as "visit your doctor regularly and seek counseling when necessary"; or common - sense tips like "eat more fresh fruit and fewer late - night snacks, drink more skim milk and less soda." In fact, even an explicit height / weight chart would do less harm than the broad generalizations and subtle accusations which seem designed to shift as many woman as possible from one unhealthy group to another or, worse yet, from a healthy, stable position to one of insecurity about their genetically coded and basically unalterable -- not to mention perfectly acceptable -- body shape.

How many of us, in response to the weight - conscious media which attacks us from every angle, feel needless guilt for "man - sized" portions and second helpings? How many feel convicted not of eating too much junk food and exercising too little but of being too fat? How many of an ideal weight (or perhaps even already underweight) resolve daily to consume fewer calories or to step up an already severe exercise regimen in order to achieve inhuman thinness? how often will the seed be subtly planted in our minds that we should weigh only 105 or 110 pounds -- as if 125 or 135 were unthinkably heavy numbers, regardless of our shape and height? Of course, it is not just one tribute to an artificial standard of female attractiveness or one skewed statistic which leads to physical or psychological trouble; it is the pervasive appeal to fear, doubt, guilt, and insecurity that leads in turn to constant worry, over - focus on eating, and distorted body image.

Perhaps an objective height / weight chart would ease some of the consternation caused by all this ambiguous information, all these conflicting messages. Faludi provides a more stable, more logical, more realistic perception of the female body. She says that the average American woman weighs in at 143 pounds and wears a size 10 or 12 dress (see Backlash 171). Similarly, U. S. Census statistics show that the average American woman, from age 18 - 44, is approximately 5'4 3/4" and 140 pounds (see Glamour, April 1989, 63). Now here's a figure we can live with and work with, one we might well see reflected in the glass. This is the body of a woman who may take a second helping, or a bowl of soup instead of the smaller cup, if she is hungry. She might even have dessert in a restaurant. Or she might eat only a salad (though it could be a large one) if she is conscientiously monitoring her calorie consumption. She is not afraid of growing up; and without a doubt, she can be attractive and feminine. Although, like me, you may not always avoid the rocky road ice cream when you should or you may be tempted to pick up the kids in the car instead of walking, don't let yourself forget the words of British columnist Laurie Graham: "You're too beautiful to go on a diet!"


  1. Thanks to Andrea Mattingly for this insightful essay:

    "This week, in two separate instances, a stranger asked how far along I was. It stung a little, but I get it. My postpartum body still looks a lot like my early pregnancy body. Of course it does! My body grew and stretched over the course of 40 weeks, and such changes won't reverse overnight. In fact, some of those changes are likely here for good; the stretch marks, for example. Looser skin, wider hips, tummy pooch, and a host of other differences I've been conditioned to notice and sigh at with a bit of remorse. These insecurities are learned. I know, because my two-year-old never turns down dessert or dreads swimsuit season. I hope she never does.

    She inherently knows something many adults seem to forget -- that the size and shape of your body, each wrinkle, dimple and roll, are irrelevant to everything that makes your body miraculous. My body moves and feels and rests. It shivers when cold, sweats when hot. It soothes my kids and embraces my husband and walks my dogs. It carried and delivered two babies, one of which it exclusively sustains at the moment. It is the temple of my being, mine and mine alone for a whole lifetime, and it deserves my love, gratitude and respect, NOT criticism or shame. And the same goes for you! Your body may be different from mine, but it is no less amazing.

    This is the body-positive truth I must convey to my daughters (and to myself, and whoever else will listen) over and over and over again, to reject the onslaught of ads, comments and societal expectations attempting to persuade us otherwise.

    Celebrate your bodies, people! Respect and celebrate the bodies of others. We are lucky to be here, beautiful and magnificent in every form."

  2. My response to Andrea: Great essay Andrea! I was asked several times in between my two pregnancies if I was expecting -- and I was thinner then than I am now -- and no one asks me that nowadays -- so I'm guessing that some of it has to do with the time of your life and that glow of motherhood! Ben & Sam were 3 years apart, but after all those questions & unnecessary congratulations, I sort of began to feel as if I were pregnant the entire time! One of the questioners was a neighbor of Gerry's parents who stopped by early one morning when I was wearing a bulky bath robe. Ever since then, Gerry's dad would refer to this neighbor as "Kitti's gynecologist." Haha! I always wished I had the nerve, whenever anyone asked "Are you expecting?" to say, "No, just on my period!" But I never did! Missed opportunity! Maybe you can use that line!
    Like · Reply · 2 · May 26 at 2:52pm

    Andrea's response to me: I love the maternal glow theory, that is a feel-good alternative! Definitely laughed out loud at your potential response. Putting that one in my pocket for next time and will report back once it has been unleashed!